Somalia: Hope Springs

Women carry jerry cans of water from shallow wells dug from the sand along the Shabelle River bed, which is dry due to drought in Somalia's Shabelle region, March 19. REUTERS/Feisal Omar

Drought-hit Somalia reaches a tipping point

By Sagal Abshir

Fatima Jibrell’s bleak outlook is evident. “We have no drinking water in Badhan today.” For the pastoralists of Somalia, only dirty, expensive water is for sale, brought in over dirt roads by truck in the scorching heat. Not a single one of the four boreholes in her small village are working.

There is a drought in the Horn of Africa. Four successive rains have failed.

Jibrell, an award-winning environmental activist, has the wise commanding presence of an elder and the shining eyes of an idealist. She is also a date farmer in Badhan, a small village 40 kilometers away from the Gulf of Aden, about halfway between Djibouti to the west and the tip of the Horn of Africa to the east. It abuts a region claimed both by Puntland State of Somalia to its right, and by the independence-seeking region of Somaliland to its left. But at this moment, borders and politics do not matter.

We know this movie, we’ve seen this play—the imagery and narrative evoked by the word ‘drought’ in this region are uncomfortably familiar. There are miles of parched landscape, animal carcasses, emaciated children with distended bellies—and flies everywhere. But this is to misunderstand drought, or to get ahead of our story.

You have to imagine we are backstage, or a few scenes earlier in this potentially tragic tale.

Drought does not mean famine. Drought does not even necessarily mean no rain at all. Drought, explains water engineer Mohamud Mohamed Ali drily, is “sequential precipitation deficiency,” meaning less than average rainfall for extended periods of time. It is a natural phenomenon that happens all the time. Even California is entering its fourth year of a record-breaking drought.

Ali was the director of the Department of Irrigation and Land Use in the Ministry of Agriculture until the state collapsed in 1991. Northern Somalia, he says, is particularly geographically disadvantaged when it comes to rainfall. The entire region, starting from eastern Ethiopia, parts of Eritrea, Djibouti and northern Somalia are on the windward side of the Ethiopian highlands, sheltered from the south-westerly wind that brings rain from the Atlantic. Add to this the increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, such as the infamous El-Nino event, and droughts are a common affair.

“In fact,” adds Ali, “nomadic pastoralism is the response to the harsh environment, developed over time to make the best use of the arid land and the erratic rainfall.” The key to this lifestyle is the constant movement that allows the pastoralists to find food and water for their livestock by moving from place to place during the different seasons, allowing the water points and trees to replenish in their absence. Over 60 percent of all Somalis rely on a pastoral or a semi-pastoral lifestyle, and drought forms part and parcel of their reality, to which they adapt, and keep moving.

Drought does not mean famine, but it can lead to it. But what turns a drought from a weather incident to a massive humanitarian disaster? It generally hinges on a combination of factors, including the intensity and duration of the drought, the aridity of the land, the vulnerability of the population, the resilience of their coping mechanisms, and more recently in our times, the ability of humanitarian actors to intervene.

The relevant concept is food security—or food insecurity—the ability or inability of people to have access to adequate affordable food. Famine is the most acute manifestation of food insecurity. The severity of food insecurity is described by a globally accepted five-stage Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, or the IPC scale which goes: Minimal, Stressed, Crisis, Emergency and, Famine. In Somalia, “over 1 million people are currently in Crisis and Emergency (IPC Phases 3 and 4),” reported the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) in early 2016.

We are still backstage, and the script is hastily being altered. Can famine be averted?

The simple plot-line is to take action before the situation worsens and turns into an IPC Phase 5, Famine. For the pastoralist, our hero, this means moving, seeking pastures further and further away and buying water and grain where he can afford it. It also means making tough decisions about selling some of his livestock before they get too weak to fetch a decent price. “Four months ago, the pastoralists moved from here south to Burao and Las Anod and Nugaal,” explains Jibrell. She’s concerned that the drought will catch up with them, and they will venture even further, to pastures more distant from better-known areas. If their animals die while they are out in remote hinterlands, they will not be able to afford to return to their homelands and will end up in camps for the displaced. Meanwhile, other pastoralists have moved from Ethiopia and other areas to the Awdal region of Somaliland, near the Djibouti border, because there was some rain at the end of 2015. Word spreads fast when rain falls anywhere.

For the governments and humanitarian communities—our supporting actors—it means using all the early warning data generated by organizations like FEWS NET to take early action.

Early action, explains Richard Trenchard, head of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), in this case means trucking water to these communities, supporting the few wells and boreholes, fixing pumps, bringing in diesel, and building water catchment systems so that the few drops of precious rain do not disappear into the dusty ground. Early action means getting cash into people’s pockets through cash-for-work programs, so they can buy food for their families without selling the livestock; stockpiling drugs and vaccines for livestock in case there is a drought-related outbreak.

However, all of this costs money. And in many cases, early action means getting the attention of the world; the donors who will pay, the well-wishers who will contribute and the non-governmental organizations who will help. It also means that it’s important to alert relatives who will send money from the diaspora. But all this must be done at the right time, and in the right way.

Drought sneaks up on you. The technical term is a slow onset disaster, and the big question is when to react. Everyone knows when it is too late, but when is the right time to start? This is the paradox—while our hero is coping and being resilient, there is no crisis to see. “We have reached a critical point in Puntland and Somaliland. Urgent action is required right now. If not, we risk a rapid and deep deterioration of the situation, as drought conditions may worsen in the coming months. Communities are already losing their means of survival. The time to fund is now to come back from the tipping point, avoid a greater crisis and avert loss of lives and save livelihoods,” said Peter de Clercq, the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia, on March 31.

But there are small silver linings. Compared to past experience in Somalia, the odds are good that this drought will not turn into a famine.

Unlike the famine of 1992-1993, there is no active civil war. At the time, Somalia was undergoing a massive implosion after the overthrow of the totalitarian regime of former military dictator, Siad Barre, which led to civil war. As the famine unfolded in the southern part of the country, relief channels were blocked by armed gangs, and humanitarian support could not reach the people. The victims were mainly women and children, and approximately 250,000 people died, despite the efforts of Operation Restore Hope, the world’s first military exercise against famine.

Similarly, unlike the famine of 2010-2012, which also took place largely in the southern part of the country, there is no real danger of humanitarian access being blocked by the presence and actions of the militant group Al Shabaab, as it was in that period. Several donors cut funding in those years out of concern that support to the needy might get diverted towards terrorist ends. Furthermore, the high global food prices of 2010 exacerbated the food insecurity, and the world’s attention was on the Arab Spring. Another 260,000 people died.

“There is no comparison to 2011-2012 this time around,” de Clercq clarifies on a call from Mogadishu. “The drought is still localized and it is affecting livestock and livelihoods mostly.” However, the concern remains—if the drought continues or if the upcoming short rains are less than normal, then things could slip over the edge. U.N. agencies have made appeals to donors for $105 million in aid to cover the next six months.

Donors are responding, he confirms. A major donor group is expected to be the Arab Gulf States long vested in the security and future of neighboring Somalia. In March, a team from the UAE’s Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan Foundation arrived in Somalia to distribute 2,500 aid parcels to people affected by the drought, whilst Saudi Arabia pledged $20 million in budget support and another $30 million for investment in January. The Arab world won’t look away if conditions worsen, but the fear is that they may be slow to act to prevent a disaster.

And yet all it takes is one look around the neighborhood to see the challenge: Next door, Ethiopia is suffering its worst drought in 50 years and 10 million people are at risk, compared to the one million at risk in Somalia. Just north of Somaliland and Puntland, across the Gulf of Aden, Yemen is facing its own acute conflict-driven humanitarian crisis; several Yemenis sought refuge in Somalia, and now face even further destitution. Further north, Syrians continue to need urgent assistance. It is a difficult time in the world.

And yet, there is a chance, as slim as it may be, that all the current efforts can turn this tide away from the precipice. Will anyone be interested in seeing this show if we are able to pull back from the precipice, and everyone lives on? Will anyone be interested in seeing this show if it is not about desperate famine? Strengthening coping mechanisms is not a particularly riveting plot; but it is heroic. “Heavy storms have been reported in parts of Awdal and Wooqoyi Galbeed regions in Somaliland. The storms have led [to the] destruction of structures, loss of unconfirmed number of livestock and six human lives. Dilla, Jufa and Kalabaydh stations recorded 86mm, 100mm and 148mm respectively last night. The wet conditions are expected to persist in the next three days in most parts of Somaliland and Puntland,” according to the rainfall forecast released by the Somalia Water and Land Information Management Project (SWALIM) on April 7.

It started to rain a week ago. Despite all the weather satellite images and reports, no one can tell if this rain is just a short series of showers, a cruel mockery of the hopes of the desperate families, or will deliver the full expected rainfall for the season. The latter will not end the food insecurity, but it will certainly arrest a slide towards an IPC Phase 4 Emergency or Phase 5 Famine. With drought, hope springs eternal.

“The livestock sector is the most productive in Somalia, with the most potential,” says FAO’s Trenchard. He adds that over 5 million live animals per year have been exported to the Arab Gulf in the last couple of years, and this represents 40 percent of the entire economy. The long term vision is to support this industry, to develop the value-add processing sector to allow Somalis to export meat instead of live animals. All this will help boost the economy, thereby further strengthening the resilience of pastoralists to withstand future shocks.

“Pastoralism has existed for millennia, and pastoralists are the most resilient people on earth,” says Dr. Solomon Munyua, director of the IGAD Center for Pastoral Areas and Livestock Development. The center brings together Horn of Africa countries that are struggling with the question of how to strengthen the livestock and dry lands economies of the region. From his modest Nairobi office, Munyua passionately explains that the biggest existential threat to the pastoralist is not drought or climate change, but the risk of being dispossessed of their pastoral lands by oil and mineral exploration. The arid lands of the pastoralists are geologically mineral-rich, and this is true across the entire Horn of Africa. Awareness raising and diversification is the key to sustainable livelihood for the drought-prone pastoralist.

Jibrell is not optimistic. With her environmental work, she has seen too much devastation of the fragile lands, largely because of the deforestation for charcoal. “There is no hope for pastoralism,” she says with regret, despite having been born to a pastoral family. The combined pressure of global climate change, environmental damage and youth urbanization sounds the death knell for this way of life. We should look for alternatives for the future, she argues, radically proposing heavy investment in fisheries infrastructure and the engagement of the entire Somali population in fishing activities along the 3,500 kilometer coastline.

But for the present, livestock is the economic mainstay in this region. The animals are shipped from ports in Somaliland and Puntland to the Gulf, and should the drought ease a bit, the upcoming Ramadan export season will be a successful one. Pastoralism is far from over.

And for now, famine and its sidekick, despair, are being kept off the stage with a script of hope and early action.

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